PROPER 22, C, 2019
HABAKKUK 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Bad. Things. Happen. You know this. I know this. The news tells us this. From destruction of our ecosystems to economic devastation to violence on large scales and small – bad things happen. From emerging antibiotic resistance to self destructive behaviors to unwelcome diagnoses, to that pesky cold that just won’t let go, bad things happen. From floods and earthquakes to my suddenly soggy feet as I pick my way to the garage – bad things happen. It is a timeless truth.
Certainly the feces was flying fast at the proverbial fan almost 3000 years ago when Habakkuk penned the lament we heard today. Thought to be a contemporary of Jeremiah and Zapheniah, the mysterious Habakkuk wrote in the early 6th century as the Babylonians, whom he calls the Chaldeans, rose to power – shattering the lives of the Israelites, plunging them into chaos. “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” He described the chaos in his world, but his words could just as easily have described ours. Bad things happen.
It’s easy to see why the disciples might beg, why we might beg for just a little more faith. “Wait” is the message in Habakkuk. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” But 6 centuries after Habakkuk and the Chaldeans, God among us set His face for Jerusalem, and the Kingdom remained elusive.
Increase our faith! The Chaldeans were long gone when the disciples voiced their plaintive cry. For some reason the lectionary doesn’t include the verses that immediately precede the disciples’ desperate sounding request-I asked Lee to read them anyway. If someone sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you, you must forgive.’ Seven times a day, one assumes day after day. That’s a lot of sinning. It’s an awful lot of forgiving. Increase my faith…
We talk about faith, they talk about faith, as if it were a commodity, something to be traded and used; strengthened and managed; saved for times of need. Preserved for the times we need the mulberry tree to uproot and jump in the ocean. Commentator Sarah Dylan Breuer writes, “The word ‘faith’ (pistis, in the Greek) is often spoken about as if it meant trying to talk ourselves into intellectual assent to something, with “increasing our faith” meaning that we are successfully persuading ourselves that we have adopted an idea we think is ridiculous. That’s not faith; it’s self-deception, and usually a pretty unsuccessful kind of self-deception that results in our feeling a little guilty and hypocritical, as we know that we don’t actually believe what we say. But faith is not about intellectual projection and assessment; it is not an intellectual analogue to that process we go through to build and maintain hubris.”
So far in Luke, Jesus named as faithful a woman’s desperate confidence that if she only touches him he will be healed (3:48), a centurion’s concern for a sick servant (7:9), and a woman’s gratitude at being forgiven (7:50). Soon he will also call faithful a Samaritan leper who returns to thank him for healing (17:19) and the plea of a blind beggar for sight (18:42). (references from David Lose). Ms. Breuer continues, “Faith is relationship — a relationship of trust, of allegiance. When Jesus talks about “faith,” he’s not talking about what you do in your head; he’s talking about what you do with your hands and your feet, your wallet and your privilege, your power and your time. Faith in Jesus is not shown by saying or thinking things about him, but by following him.”
Now Jesus launches into what to modern ears seems a highly distasteful discourse on slavery – indeed the passage has been used in the past to justify the reprehensible institution of slavery. I’ll let you in on a secret, Jesus wasn’t talking about slavery. He was talking about relationship.
My grandmother was a formidable woman. She raised two daughters under very difficult circumstances, and loved them fiercely. She had this perfect posture and dignity and brooked no nonsense. She came, over time, to accept my father as an adequate suitor for her daughter. He knew how to be polite, and what direction respect needed to flow. He earned his bachelors and masters from MIT and had a good job. He cleaned up nicely, looking sharp in his crisp Air Force Uniform. She found him acceptable.
But the thing that impressed her, the story she told me over and over about my father came after my brother was born. My grandmother came to help very soon after his birth, as new grandmothers do. When she came, of course, my brother was still very much in what my husband sentimentally calls the “leaky sack of fluids” stage of infancy. Fluid in, fluid out. He cried one day as newborns do, and Grandmother came in all her efficiency to remedy the situation. There she found my father. Changing. dirty. diapers. 500 years ago Martin Luther wrote, “When a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other menial task for his child…God with all his angels and creatures is smiling”. I’m sure, had he known her, Martin Luther would be relieved to know my grandmother agreed with him. She fell in love with my father at that point, and was still telling me the story 15 years later. My father shrugs when reminded of this story. That’s what fathers do. Not for thanks, not for payback, certainly not for glory, and not even to win over their formidable mothers-in-law. But because that is the relationship.
We cannot approach a life in Christ as an exercise in maximizing faith or optimizing likelihood of attaining eternal bliss. G.K. Chesterton rightly advised, ““Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”
I paraphrase Thomas Merton slightly, substituting “serving Christ” for “prayer”, “We are indoctrinated into means and ends…But that is not the way to build a life [serving Christ]. In [serving Christ] we discover what we already have. You start where you are, and you deepen what you already have, and you realize that you are already there. We already have everything, but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess. The trouble is, we aren’t taking the time to do so.
“Wait” says the God of Habakkuk. In verses we did not read, his faithful prophet responds with hope in a hopeless world:
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength; (Habakkuk 3: 17-19a)
We are not, as Mother Teresa said, called to do great things, but to do small things with great love. Change the dirty diapers of the world, one diaper at a time. Reach out to the stranger in love. Challenge the injustice in your little corner of the world. Teach a child and open her world. Offer a healing touch, a nourishing meal, an ardent defense, all for the love of Christ…That mustard seen is within you. Let it grow. Amen.
PROPER 21, C
1 Timothy 6:6-19
“At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus.” Over the course of the 4 canonical gospels, Jesus blessed us with at least thirty-seven parables (depending on who’s counting), comprising about a third of the recorded teachings of Jesus. Parables about the Kingdom. Parables about forgiveness. Parables about redemption. Parables about prayer. Parables about, well there are a couple that we haven’t quite figured out what they are about, with last week being a prime example. Thirty-seven parables. One name. Lazarus. In 37 parables, one person gets a name. Why?
The Gospel of Luke in particular is replete with references to God’s compassion for the poor as well as references to the reversal of earthly fortunes in the Kingdom of God. Mary sings “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty”. The beatitudes in the sermon on the plain declare “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” From these examples through today’s parable, Luke emphasizes God’s compassion for the poor, the crippled, the lame.
Parables tell truths within stories allowing those truths to be more easily absorbed, digested. A story captures imagination and engages a listener in a way no dry discourse can. A master story teller, Jesus drew from the familiar. Most of his parables arose from everyday life in Palestine. This more fanciful tale he adapted to his purposes from an Egyptian folk tale of the afterlife. It is not meant to be a theological expository on the nature of Heaven and Hell – the story is not really about heaven and hell at all. It’s about seeing. It’s about relationship – with God, with neighbor. This is, in a way, Christendom’s original Pearly Gates joke.
You may have heard this more modern Pearly Gates story. In our changing climate, floods are becoming ever more common. The flood waters rose in the community of a devout Christian man. He went to his roof and he prayed, “Heavenly Father, help me.” A family in a rowboat came by and offered him room in their boat. “No. Thank you, kind neighbor, but my faith will save me.” The flood waters rose, and he climbed to the peak of his roof. “Heavenly Father, the flood waters are rising, help me.” Just as it seemed he would be washed away a rescue boat noticed him and offered him safety. “No. Thank you, kind neighbor, but my faith will save me.” Finally he was washed away, but he managed to grab a tree as the waters rushed by. A helicopter spotted him and came to pick him up. Again, the faithful man clung to his prayer and his faith. “No. Thank you, kind neighbor, but my faith will save me.” He died. When he came to the Pearly Gates he approached St. Peter – Maybe it was Father Abraham? – and said, “I was a good Christian man. I gave to the church. I said my prayers. I clung to my faith. Why did God not save me?” Said Father Abraham, “He sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?”
God sent us Moses, the prophets, sent us his Son. He daily sends us opportunities to see, to listen, to act, but all we see is the floodwater of poverty. We cling to what we know. We hide our eyes.
800 million people, 11% of the people in the world are immediately vulnerable to climate change impacts – drought, floods, extreme weather changes. 1 in 10 people live at altitudes at relatively immediate threat by rising sea levels. In the U.S., the wealthiest nation in the world, nearly 15 percent – some 40 million people – struggle to put food on the table. 12 million of these hungry ones are children. 25% of Native Americans live in poverty. Nearly 2.5 million preventable deaths of children under the age of 5 every year—are related to malnutrition. (Bread for the World.) Ecologically and economically irresponsible practices of the rich impact the very poor dramatically more than anyone else. The numbers are absolutely overwhelming. The immensity of the chasm between the world as it is and the world as it should be is enormous. We become inured to tragedy, to poverty, to hunger. We don’t see anymore.
Jesus gives Lazarus a name. Lazarus is not one in 10 or one of 800 million people or part of 25%. Lazarus is Lazarus. Neighbor to the rich man. Jesus describes no malevolence in the rich man. He lived in his fine house with his fine clothes and ate his fine food. Jesus convicts him of nothing worse than living the American dream 1700 years before America existed to live it in. We don’t know that he abused Lazarus. He didn’t see Lazarus. The rich man built the chasm between them, a chasm constructed of indifference, an indifference so profound it persisted even in death – send him with father, send him to my brothers – the demand of a master, not an equal.
A first century Palestinian would not have been inclined to see the rich man as evil. Their culture taught them that reward follows virtue. Rich = Righteous. A diseased or poverty stricken person must have sinned, or had parents who did. We are not so different. Jesus doesn’t tell us if Lazarus drank his last pay. He doesn’t tell us if Lazarus got sacked for showing up to work late. He doesn’t tell us if Lazarus lived too long on his parents’ good will or gambled away the family livestock. He doesn’t say. It doesn’t matter. He is suffering. He is our neighbor.
Although our culture tells us that we cannot have enough – enough money, enough power, enough security, enough stuff – for the most part, we are rich. Some have more monetary wealth than others to be sure, but by virtue of the fact that we have clean water and heat in the winter and food on our tables, we are rich. And yet, we do not have to be the rich man. We can open our eyes and see the need outside our gates. We can painstakingly demolish the chasm. We can set our hopes not on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God. We can be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share. We can take hold of the life that really is life. The poor, the suffering, the marginalized – they have names. They are our neighbors. Sweet holy God, open our eyes to see your work in the world around us: the work you have done. The work we must, must do! AMEN
PROPER 20, C, 2019
Sometimes words just sound biblical. Even if you cannot place the phrase chapter and verse, it seems nonetheless biblicalish: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud.” “This too shall pass.” “The Lord moves in mysterious ways.” You don’t have to know chapter and verse to know the source. In case you, like me, like most Episcopalians, don’t know chapter and verse of every bible quote someone spits out, the first is from John 3:8; the second from Romans 12:16. No one quite knows where the third is from, but it’s not actually in the Bible. The notion of its biblicalness can be traced to football coach Mike Ditka’s misquote at his press conference after the Chicago Bears fired him. As to the last, The Lord moves in mysterious ways – we actually have poet and hymnodist William Cowper rather than Jesus to thank for that one. From Jesus we have instead, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into their eternal homes”, Given everything that Jesus teaches before and after, this sounds not only NOT biblical, but mysterious indeed.
This parable follows the lost chapter we discussed last week – the lost coin, the lost sheep and the prodigal son. If you read a half a dozen commentaries on this parable, you will find at least a dozen interpretations of it. It’s that baffling. We’ve gone from the lost chapter to the insoluble parable. For the moment, we are going to resist the temptation to assume that Jesus sprained a parable spinning muscle with the Prodigal Son and simply went wildly astray with this story. We are going to further, for the moment, put aside the attractive idea that the meticulous Luke got his notes out of order somehow. Finally, we are going to reject the simple and entirely plausible notion that some scribe some time in history overindulged in mead before reaching this page and in an alcoholic haze inadvertently altered the sacred word forever. Eliminating these explanations leaves us with one simple question, “Huh?” Is Jesus really telling us to cheat and steal our way into eternal life?
If all else fails, take a look at the context. Back we go to Jewish first century Palestine. The torah forbids charging interest due to its exploitative nature. Respectable people (like the manager’s rich master, for example) must abide by the letter of that law. Abiding by the letter of the law is what respectable people do. Ah, but a person’s got to make a living, right? Witness the attitude Amos illustrates in our first lesson today: Can’t work on the Sabbath? When will worship end so we can get back to selling? Not making a profit? Change the value of the ephah and the shekel, the currency. Torah says you can’t charge interest? You get around that law by rolling the number that would have been interest into the total debt. No itemized bill, no interest – sort of like adding the gratuity to the bill for large parties in a restaurant. And while it wasn’t technically interest, it was a standardized rate – higher for the more risky commodities, lower for more stable things. Olive oil, which can spill or go rancid, fetched 50% price hike. “Take your hundred jug bill and make it 50.” The more stable wheat fetched 20%. You owe 100 containers of wheat? Make it 80. (source: Alyce McKenzie, The Dishonest Steward: Reflections on Luke 16:2-8a) While the steward’s motives are far from philanthropic, he gives back to the debtors only what they should never have owed. What they could never keep up with. What kept them perpetually beholden. The steward forgives their debts -forgives their debts in the name of the Master. Suddenly it seems bit more biblical.
Rather than bemoaning his losses, the master commends the manager – possibly for finally showing the cleverness the master thought he was hiring in the first place. Still we wait for Jesus to tell us why the manager was wrong, how the master was duped. We are respectable Christians following respectable rules doing our respectable Christian thing. Surreptitiously redistributing the wealth of others is more Robin Hood than Jesus. But forgiveness – that is Jesus. That is so very Jesus.
Anglican scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer explains it this way,
“FORGIVE,” Jesus says. “Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all. Forgive even someone who’s sinned against you, or against your sense of what is obviously right. You don’t have to do it out of love for the other person, if you’re not there yet. You could forgive the other person because that’s what you pray in Jesus’ name every Sunday morning, and because you know you’d like forgiveness yourselves. You could forgive because you know what it feels like to stay unforgiving, the bad taste of bitterness festering inside you. You could forgive because you are, or we want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Jesus’ power to forgive and free sinners like us. Or you could forgive because you think it will improve your odds of getting to heaven.
It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Imagine how extending the kind of grace God shows us into every possible arena – financial and moral – can only put us more deeply in touch with God’s grace. (Sarah Dylan Breuer, SarahLaughed.net: dylan’s lectionary blog, Proper 20, Year C)
Fr. Robert Capon (Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus) makes the case that although we – and by “we” I mean the church; the fine, upstanding, respectable church – that although we cannot resist the urge to gussy up Jesus, to make him respectable and clean and pretty, Jesus tells this parable precisely to illustrate that He most definitively, deliberately, decidedly is not respectable. He broke the sabbath and ate with sinners and disrupted worship and overturned the money tables and was executed as a criminal. He’s not respectable. He’s down and dirty and real.
According to Fr. Capon, “The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing–which is the only grace there is.”
I don’t believe that Jesus intends us to steal. He was pretty insistent a number of times about that whole 10 commandments thing. But he does expect us to throw off the yoke of respectable, predictable behavior, to creatively challenge the status quo of power and wealth differential, to forgive radically – no matter who might be looking or what they might think. As Mother Theresa reminded her nuns, “In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
“You cannot serve God and wealth.” You cannot serve the status quo and forgive. You cannot serve Christ and respectability.
To paraphrase William Purkey:
You’ve gotta serve like there’s nobody watching,
Forgive like you’ve never been hurt,
Pray like God’s always listening,
And live to bring heaven on earth.
PROPER 19, CLuke 15:1-10
“Let anyone with ears to hear listen” says Jesus to close out Luke’s Chapter 14. And then, “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus”. And here we sit complete with our own faults and frailties, our own silent acquiescence to the status quo, our own moments of smug self satisfaction, at home with the tax collectors and the sinners and the grumbling pharisees and scribes, listening to the “The Lost Chapter” of Luke. The entirety of this chapter consists of parables about lost things. The most famous of all lost and found stories, the Prodigal Son, rounds out the chapter after the parables Mel just read.
Everybody knows the story of the Prodigal Son, but I really love these two parables. Lost is a quality I can identify with. I possess what may well be – and I don’t mean to brag here, but we are in a time and a place for truth telling – I possess what may be the world’s most impressively, mind bogglingly, abysmal sense of direction; an absolutely uncanny ability to get lost.
Within the last couple of years my brother taught me a life altering trick – you can tap on an address on a smart phone. If your phone is in the mood, it will offer to give you step by step directions about how to get to your destination. This is miraculous, although the pesky thing does keep saying things like, “go north to highway 100”, or “head west 200 feet to 3rd Street”. Understand, if I can’t physically see Canada or witness a sunset in real time, I don’t know North from West. This limits the utility of the phone’s function outside of waterfront I Falls. Still, most of the time with a smart phone I can get anyplace I can google.
15 years before Google existed and closer to 30 years before I bought a smartphone, I unofficially tagged along with my brother’s Explorer post for a backpacking trip in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. Dad served as a volunteer leader. He and I had been hiking together for a while. We shared the weight. He carried the tent. I carried the fly and ground tarp. He had the food and matches. I had the clean-up stuff and spices. I had short little legs (even shorter back then than they are now), so I hiked slower than my father and brother and my brother’s long-legged friends. The trail travelled mostly downhill that afternoon, making for a spot 9000 some feet above sea level called Teepee Pole flats. We all started off at the same time down the back country trail, but the other hikers soon hiked out of my sight. I toddled along at my own pace, lost in my own little world, alternately enjoying the scenery and cursing the rocks and branches in the trail.
As the day wore on, the grade of the trail evened out. Flat ground replaced the steady downhill. I eventually reached a subtle little carved sign. Teepee Pole Flats. Our destination. Except I was alone. Everybody else had been ahead of me, but I.was.alone. Maybe a scampering marmot shared my space, some buzzing insects. But no human. I hiked on a short ways. Hiked back. Read the sign again. Drank some water. Peered up the trail. And back. Remembered I wasn’t carrying the food. Or the main part of the tent. Or matches. Read the sign again. Teepee Pole Flats.
Finally my father and brother came busting down the trail with some speed, wearing facial expressions ranging from concerned to determined to grim; expressions which transformed to relief and sheer joy when they saw me inexplicably in the right place. They too remembered I did not have a tent, or food, or matches, and had remembered also the sheer scale of the country we traversed. I learned later that the trail had several turn offs. For anyone with a functioning sense of direction other trails seemed far more logical ones to follow. With no sense of direction to hamper my way, I mindlessly put one foot in front of the other all the way down the mountainside. I arrived at the designated spot first, complete with confirmatory signpost, but I cannot explain how very lost I felt.
C.H. Dodd wrote nearly a century ago that “A parable arrests the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaves the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought” (Parables of the Kingdom, 1935:16). The moral of this story, Jesus says, is “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents”. So we happily make God into shepherd or housewife, and take on the role of sheep or coin, sought after and valued by God, as long as we repent and turn back again into the right way. Problem is, that coin, did not repent. My guess, the sheep didn’t either. That sheep mindlessly put one foot in front of the other until it found itself without ovine company. They, the coin and the sheep, were found because somebody wanted them found, insisted that they be found. And it is comforting, I guess, to think that our God will find us, our Savior save us even if we just sit around mindlessly sheeping. It’s comforting, but it puts me back at TP Pole flats, helplessly staring at the sign, wondering what to DO.
Which of you, Jesus says, “having a hundred sheep?” Not which of you buried in dust bunnies under the bed, or bleating alone in the countryside, but which of you having a hundred sheep or 10 coins. To imagine ourselves, not as bleating ruminant, nor as missing currency, but as trustworthy shepherd, as the diligent housekeeper, that puts the emphasis of the parable on a different syllable completely.
In this case, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Repentance is not the issue, but rejoicing; the plot is not about mending our evil ways, but about seeking, sweeping, finding, rejoicing. The invitation is not about being rescued by Jesus over and over again, but about joining him in rounding up God’s herd and reviving God’s treasure. It is about questioning the idea that there are certain conditions the lost must meet before they are eligible to be found, or that there are certain qualities they must exhibit before we will seek them out. It is about discovering the joy of finding.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life). It’s about finding and building and rejoicing in God and all God’s creation.
The 13th century Sufi mystic, Rumi, said, “What you seek is seeking you.”
We are sought and we are seeker. We are lost and we are found, shepherd and sheep, lover and beloved. We can rest in Christ’s peace and still reach out to welcome the lost. We can be co-creators of love in this world (paraphrased from Fr. Richard Rohr), sweeping every corner for the lost, the lonely, the frightened – and all this because of the crazy, mixed up, insane, upside down abundance of life and joy that is God among us.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
PROPER 9, B
2 CORINTHIANS 12:2-10
In Mark’s Gospel we heard two stories today. In the first one, Jesus returns to his home town to preach in the synagogue. We can assume that the stories of his ministry have preceded him, but the wonder at his wisdom and power is quickly replaced by contempt when the congregation realizes that this Jesus is one of their own. Well, how can he be the one? The elders still remember seeing him running around the village in diapers or naked. How can someone they have known for years as the local carpenter now come to them as a Rabbi?
Jesus responds with his own disappointment clear. “Prophets are not without honor except in their hometown, and among their own kin and in their own house.” Remember that just recently his family had shown up where he was preaching and healing in Capernaum to take him home because they thought he had lost his mind.
So Jesus leaves them to preach among the other villages. And now when he sends out his disciples two by two to spread the word and heal the sick, he tells them, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet. . .” This is based on the Jewish practice of shaking off the dust of non-Jewish territory when they travel through it.
Jesus is telling his disciple several things at one time. If people refuse to hear you, move on. Treat them as you would non-Jews, not blaming them or blaming yourselves for not succeeding with them. Your job is to testify to the truth and not be discouraged by any failures, but just move on to the next opportunity.
Isn’t this good news? As one commentator noted, “evangelism is not ‘to get them on our side’ or even ‘to grow the church,’ but simply to tell others about the God who has come to mean so much to us. This is an action performed out of love, not competition or anxiety.” We don’t need polished words, sophisticated theology, or clever dogma to speak of our faith. We are simply called to speak truth in love, from the heart, in our own words, and never be ashamed.
The best news is that we are not held responsible for the response to our ministries in Christ’s name, but only for our own faithfulness to the task. So why is it so hard for us to witness boldly and faithfully?
One of the commentators told this story about a woman who worked in a bookstore. She waited on a Hasidic Jew one morning, who asked to know about Jesus. She showed him the section of the store with books on Jesus. “No,” he said, “Don’t show me any more books, tell me what you believe.”
The woman reported that, “My Episcopal soul shivered.”
But she gulped and told him everything she could think of. Such God-talk, especially outside of church, makes most of us anxious and we worry about knowing the right words. Most Episcopalians would rather talk about anything else, even sex or their salary, before talking about what they believe about God or Jesus.
But Jesus has made it very clear, in sending the disciples out and in many other places, that telling the story with words is part of our job as disciples. The good news is that we are not responsible for the response to our words. Like the sower, we don’t have to be successful, we just have to sow the seeds.
And there is more good news in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. The passage we heard today was written as part of a longer message against the so-called super apostles who were having some success in Corinth. They boasted of their personal spiritual experiences and used that personal experience as the basis for their authority. This is a phenomena that is still current in our times and can be found on TV most any week you care to tune in.
This somewhat explains the convoluted way he talks about a vision he had. He distances himself from it by saying someone else had the vision. So he might boast about someone else but not about himself.
As one commentator noted, “Just as he had earlier affirmed that he regularly spoke in tongues but refrained from doing so in public because it did not benefit the entire community, now he alludes to his powerful vision without directly describing it. Such inward experiences deepen his faith, but they do not constitute a basis for his authority over the church. That authority rests not upon what he has experienced in an inward, private way, but on the manner in which he is living the gospel in their midst.”
Paul then goes on to describe a “thorn in his flesh,” given to him by Satan, but that keeps him from being too elated by his spiritual experience. In other words, this thorn keeps him humble, keeps him grounded, and prevents him from thinking too highly of himself (as, by implication, the super apostles do).
Now there’s always been much speculation about what this thorn might be, but once again, Paul does not describe it. In the days of my youth I heard it said it might have been epilepsy. More recently I’ve heard folks speculate that Paul might have been gay. Really, we don’t know and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Paul was not perfect either. Clearly this was some sort of spiritual glitch in his character that he had to struggle against and that reminded him that he was like the rest of us. What Satan intended for harm is transformed by God’s grace to blessing.
When Paul asked God to remove this thorn, three times, his request was denied and he claims that God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
And Paul concludes, “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
Not only does this tell us that we can be disciples in spite of our weaknesses, but that we must be; that our weaknesses make us better disciples than any sort of perfection would; that being a wounded healer is more important and more effective than being perfect, because God can transform our weakness into power. What we do in our weakness can transform others through the power and grace of God working through us.
All God asks us to do is to be faithful to God and to be willing to talk to others about that faith. We know how to live out our faith in the world. We just have to go do it and share it. We don’t have to do it well, we won’t be graded on our performance, and we may never know if we made an impact, but that’s OK. We just have to walk the walk and talk the talk, knowing that God is with us. AMEN
Proper 17, B
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Debie Thomas is a writer of Indian heritage. She writes, “I grew up in a church where jewelry was not allowed. No one in the congregation wore engagement rings or wedding bands. Women and girls weren’t permitted to wear rings, necklaces, bracelets, or earrings. Even play jewelry — the pink plastic rings I’d pull out of cereal boxes or the bead bracelets I’d make at my friends’ birthday parties — was banned. Anyone who showed up on a Sunday morning sporting an “ornament” — even first-time visitors ignorant of the prohibition — could be denied Communion.”
She learned to resent the rules, resent God’s reported hatred of jewelry. She found the argument that she was “clothed in righteousness”, that she was “storing up treasure in heaven”, that avoiding material distractions would make her a better Christian unconvincing. Instead of blossoming in purity and love, her heart seethed with anger and frustration, concentrating on her lack of adornment, NOT her love of Christ.
Years later, she learned the background:
In her great grandparents formative years, a large-scale charismatic revival swept through South India…”Many young adults had embraced the simple faith the revivalists encouraged in those days, and chosen — often at great personal and social cost — to change their lifestyles for the sake of the Gospel. One of the lifestyle changes centered around jewelry. At a time when gold meant social capital in India, when even Christian families judged each other’s worth by the weight of the jewelry their women wore, when girls whose fathers couldn’t produce enough jewelry for their dowries had to remain unmarried, the decision to forsake “ornaments” in the name of Jesus was a radical one. It spoke powerfully to the equalizing power of the Gospel. No longer would my great-grandparents and their peers participate in the snobbery of their time and place; instead, they would live counter-culturally and practice what Jesus preached — even if it meant losing their social standing and family honor. No matter what the cost, they would embrace humility, simplicity, and equality as testimonies of Christ’s non-discriminating love.
What began as a daring, transformative radical embrace of Christ’s love transformed over the years into grounds for exclusion of “less holy” people, people with crackerjack rings or a gold cross – someone who didn’t meet the code”. (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus)
We love to hate the pharisees and their codes. Their hypocrisy, their self righteous bigotry, their fundamentalism, their tenacious grip on out-dated laws.
As it turns out, the Pharisees’ observance of the law began as a form of radical witness to the nations around them, a manner of demonstrating with their very lives the gift of the law that the one true God had given Israel through Moses.
One commentator writes, “In the book of Exodus, before the giving of the law, God tells the people of Israel that they are to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” in the midst of the nations around them (Exodus 19:6). The Pharisees took this calling to be a priestly kingdom and holy nation very seriously. They interpreted the laws concerning priests serving in the temple to apply to all God’s people and all aspects of life. As priests serving in the temple were required to wash their hands before entering the holy place or offering a sacrifice, the Pharisees believed that all Jews should wash their hands before meals as a way of making mealtime sacred, bringing every aspect of life under the canopy of God’s law. (Elisabeth Johnson, Working Preacher)
What began as way to bring the holy into every day of every life became a way to exclude the unholy, the unrighteous, the unworthy.
Once upon a time, an Eskimo hunter went to see the local missionary who had been preaching in his village.
“I want to ask you something,” the hunter said.
“What’s that?” the missionary said.
“If I did not know about God and sin,” the hunter said, “would I go to hell?”
“No,” the missionary replied, “if you did not know about God and sin, then you would not go to hell.”
“Then why,” asked the hunter, “did you tell me?”
(Annie Dilliard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)
Things might be easier if Jesus didn’t insist that we look at what comes out of our hearts. If we did not see what see when we look in the mirror of our lives.
We don’t like to think about sin, not as it applies to us anyway. We have, as one priest writes, “downsized those things we call sin”. We call lying “spin” and greed “motivation.” We call gossip “venting” to make it more acceptable. (Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: the Lost Language of Salvation.). That downsizing is perhaps in reaction to church’s traditional tendency to use sin to shame, to control, to separate, to do exactly what the pharisees are doing – sift out the holy from the un-holy.
Richard Rohr wrote that “the original notion of sin is not to impute guilt; it is to name reality”. Jesus names reality, holds up the stark, naked truth for all to see. We cannot hide behind rules. These are the things that defile: fornication, theft, murder; These are the things that hold us separate from God: adultery, avarice, wickedness, These are the things which wound our souls: deceit, envy, pride, folly. To change that reality, we must see and name that reality; lest we become those who look at themselves in a mirror and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.
Jesus names reality. In fulfillment of God’s own purpose [God] gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
The heart is the inner face of your life. The human journey strives to make this inner face beautiful. It is here that love gathers within you. Love is absolutely vital for a human life. For love alone can awaken what is divine within you. In love, you grow and come home to yourself. (John O`Donohue – Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom)
Proper 16, B
I read a story this week about a Duke University fraternity hazing prank. The frat brothers kidnapped a pledge, confiscated his clothes and dressed him in only Duke Blue Devils mascot costume. They drove him out into the NC countryside and left him there. The young man began the slow walk back, trudging along in his horns, and pointy ears and goatee. An hour or so into his trek, he heard the welcome sound of prayer and singing and recognized a country church in the midst of a revival meeting. Hmmm, he thought, “Church people are good people. Surely someone will give me a ride back to Duke.” Full of hope, he strode confidently across the parking lot, blue cape fluttering behind him and burst in the front door. The preacher stopped his preaching mid-sentence…and stared. The entire congregation turned en masse to look at what the preacher was looking at. And they stared. Suddenly, the preacher dove out the window. Other folk began to run and dive out windows too, until there was only one person left staring: One poor old woman, too old to run and too frail to dive out the window. She sat alone in the church. The devil stood between her and the church’s only door. “She began to sidle down the aisle while talking in a soft voice, “Mr. Devil, my husband, bless his heart, was a deacon in this church for almost 40 years, one of my sons is a missionary, and my daughter is married to a pastor, and I was president of the Women’s Missionary Society for 20 years, but I just want you to know—I been on your side all along!” (paraphrased from Delmer Chilton, Living Lutheran, August, 2018)
And Joshua said to the people, …if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
Bob Dylan laid out more or the less the same choices in his song “Gonna have to serve somebody”, but it spent far more time on the pop charts: “Well it may be the devil” Dylan sang, “or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Jesus isn’t going to make the pop charts in today’s lessons. People are tuning out in droves, heading down off the mountainside, back home where food and healing and miracles may be scarce, but at least things make sense. Bread of life, indeed. Eat my flesh – I don’t think so. It’s been fun, Jesus, but I think we’re done here.
The crowds gone, most of the followers gone – in one of those few vulnerable sounding moments that remind you that Jesus took on human flesh, human frailty, Jesus asks the 12, ““Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answers for the disciples, but doesn’t answer yes or no. He can’t. That beautiful, vulnerable question has become irrelevant.
The first sermon I ever preached was on this text. I shared then that although I’ve never been fond of Physics. (Too much math for me) occasionally a theory seems to catch the imagination and worm its way into the more accessible parts of life. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle says that the closer you try to watch particles in motion, the more you change what they do, making them impossible to measure precisely. In different forms (minus all those pesky equations), the theory appears in other disciplines as the Observer Effect. Psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists recognize that they can’t watch something without changing the thing that they are observing. The closer we watch, the more things change. If an anthropologist watches a village from a distance, the villagers may shift routines a little, just because they know someone is watching. If that researcher lives with a family in the village, every interaction will be changed. (We don’t talk so much about the observer being changed by what they see, but that happens too.)
Simon Peter and the others have been living with Jesus, observing Jesus, feasting on his words, his actions, his spirit, his bread. They have changed. “Lord, to whom can we go? … We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” They cannot unsee what they have seen, unknow what they have known.
Sara Miles, a left wing, lesbian journalist raised as an atheist found herself walking into St Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco one winter morning. She wrote later that it made no earthly sense for her to be there. She had never heard a Gospel lesson, never prayed the Lord’s prayer and had no interest in becoming a Christian, or as she thought of it “a religious nut.” Drawn on impulse by a reporter’s curiosity, she went into the church.
“I walked in, took a chair, and tried not to catch anyone’s eye. . . . Then a man and a woman … stood and began chanting in harmony. There was no organ, no choir, no pulpit; just the unadorned voices of the people. . . . I sang too. It crossed my mind that this was ridiculous. We sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, waited and listened and stood up and sang, and it was all pretty peaceful and sort of interesting. “Jesus invites everyone to his table,” the woman announced, and we started moving up in a stately dance to the table in the rotunda. . . .
And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying “the body of Christ,” and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying “the blood of Christ,” and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me. . . . And I knew God, named Christ or Jesus, was real”  . .
We have some choices to make.
We can eat the bread and fish, then head back down the mountainside, keep Jesus at a distance, try to unknow the mystery we have known, push aside the hunger deep within, and serve self interest.
Or we can let Jesus happen to us. We can eat of the bread of life, allow Jesus to draw near, drawing near to Him in turn, know Him as the Holy one of God, serve Him, love neighbor and enemy, allow the transformation of Christ within.
Proper 15, B
Barbara Brown Tayler (BBT), an Episcopal priest as well as an rich resource for homiletic plagiarism, tells the story of one young girl’s first communion. She bounced to the rail excited to participate for the first time. She took the bread, then “Her chubby fingers circled the chalice as she peered into her reflection.”
“The blood of Christ,” intoned the chalice bearer guiding the chalice to the child’s lips, “the cup of salvation.”
“Yuck!” the little girl said, pushing the cup back. “You keep it. I don’t want any.”
“Her reaction made perfect sense. Who willingly drinks human blood or eats human flesh? The taboo against dining on members of our own species is strong and old. In biblical times, consuming body and blood was something reserved for one’s worst enemies, as when the psalmist writes”When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh – my adversaries and foes-they shall stumble and fall” (Ps 27:2). Christ’s instructions to do just that have left Christians vulnerable to ridicule by those outside the faith and to doubt by those inside.” (BBT, The Preaching Life p 78-79)
Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them, and said: “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you.”
As supper was ending, Jesus took the cup of wine. He gave thanks and gave it to them saying: “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is poured out for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.
I say this, or some version of this every week. We take in our wafer or the more substantial lovingly made loaf and our sip of sweet wine. We go back to our seats in peace and think our theological thoughts and make our metaphorical connections and all is well and neat and orderly – in a pattern established on a hillside in Galilee 2000 years ago: Take, bless, break, give…
Until Jesus insists, Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” That vivid, disturbing image burns away neat metaphors. As one commentator notes, “Maybe the real miracle in the sixth chapter of John wasn’t that 5000 people were fed at the beginning, but that a dozen were still left at the end!” (Wallace W. Bubar, “Reflections on the Lectionary,” in Christian Century, August 22, 2012, 20.)
Jesus, apparently not content with merely introducing this disturbing thought and letting well enough alone, repeats it, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life”. And again, “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” As barbaric as the words seem, our translation does not reflect that Jesus has upped the ante still more. He shifted from the common word for “eat” (esthio) to “trago” a somewhat onomatopoetic word more closely translated as “munch” or “gnaw”, eating as an animal would, loudly. Over and over that image, “Those who gnaw my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
You’ve heard the story of the farmer and his mule? A farmer was prodigiously proud of his mule. He bragged to friends and neighbors and strangers alike about how obedient it was. “All you have do is ask politely, and it will do whatever you want.”
His long term neighbors had all seen the mule working at his farm, pulling huge weights, braving any conditions with the farmer whispering in his ear.
One day a new neighbor challenged the farmer ”All mules are stubborn,” he said, “I don’t believe yours is any different.”
“My mule is different,” said the farmer. “It’s well-behaved, and all you have to do is ask nicely and it will do whatever you want.”
“I still don’t believe you,” the neighbor retorted. “Show me.”
So the farmer took him out to the barn, and there in a stall at the back was the mule. Just as they walked up to it, the farmer leaned down, picked up a two-by-four, and smacked the mule upside the head.
Stunned, his challenger asked, “What are you doing? I thought you said your mule was obedient and would do whatever you asked?”
“Ah, yes,” the farmer answered, “but you’ve got to get its attention first.
Frederick Buechner wrote “One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God” This lesson, this fleshy, munchy, masticating, untidy lesson is Jesus’s 2×4. He forces his historical listeners to look up from their laws and their purity codes, forces us to look up from neat rows of clean pews and face the messy prospect of transformation in Christ. Taking Christ into ourselves, wholly and completely, digesting that substance, chewing on that reality, incorporating it into our own souls and bodies, becoming what we eat – the Body of Christ – this is an intimate, untidy, visceral and immediately compelling process.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” – not will have, not down the road. This is not merely a promise for a cozy afterlife strumming harps on a cloud. People hunger now. Prisoners suffer now. Children cry alone now. The earth groans under the weight of our use now.
A few years ago, a Barna Research Group took a random survey of a cross-section of Americans. Their research question: “What is the phrase you most long to hear?”
First place answer, hardly surprising, the phrase people most wanted to hear – “I love you”
Second place answer – “I forgive you”
Third place answer to “What is the phrase you most long to hear?”
Jesus said, I love you. Jesus said, “I forgive you”. Finally, when the time was right, Jesus said, “Dinner’s ready” and offered himself, flesh and blood, heart and soul – his life for our consumption.
This is the meal we reach out for at [the] communion [rail], caught between our desire to be fed and our certain knowledge that we too are being called to take, bless, break, and give the stuff of our lives. (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, p 77)
“Receive who you are” invited St. Augustine and then “go become what you have received.”
Proper 14, B
1 Kings 19:4-8
John 6:35, 41-51
I remember a time; about 10 years ago now; it seems both a very long time ago and as if it were just yesterday. You, Holy Trinity and I had just begun the discernment process for the priesthood, just begun it officially anyway. (I think I began the process in childhood. I just didn’t recognize it for another 30 years).
But still it marked a beginning and like all beginnings it was pregnant with promise, with hope. I went on with my normal, every day life, but all my life had become a prayer. I felt full of fervor and fever, like the Spirit of God was dancing around in my heart and my mind all the time, like the love of God surrounded me, permeated my being, oozed from my very pores. I wanted to laugh and shout and dance and cry all at the same time, all for the love of Christ. And then I knew. I was…
Crazy. Stark raving mad. Completely off the deep end. When God is oozing from your pores, this is the stuff of crazy.
Rather than present myself for psychiatric care, I went to talk to Lynn. (Lynn has talked me down from crazy more than once), Now Lynn, in her wisdom, while she did think that preaching might prove a better, or at least more sustainable outlet than mad shouting and dancing in the aisles, did not think I was crazy. Didn’t say I was crazy at least. I’ve always remembered what she did say, “I’m so happy. You need to remember this; hold on to this for the dry times”
Elijah, today, has reached the dry times, the scared times, the tired times. As Christians we mostly hear about Elijah in the New Testament when someone compares Jesus to him or wants to build him a tent, but most of us don’t know his story well.
800 years before Jesus’s birth, Israel’s King Ahab married a foreigner, Jezebel. Jezebel talked Ahab into abandoning Yahweh and worshiping the fertility god Baal, a fact which did not make God super happy. Jezebel also started killing off God’s prophets, which you can imagine was also not a source of delight for God. Elijah, fiery and full of zeal prophecied and preached truth to power, his ears full of the Word of the One God.
After a devastating 3 year drought and famine, Elijah arranged a dramatic confrontation with about four hundred and fifty priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. Read chapter 18 of I Kings for all the gory, exciting details, but there’s a lot of whole lot of trash talking, and God testing, and offerings and swords and blood and fire.
Eventually, after the priests of Baal utterly fail to bring down fire with their prayers and chants, Elijah calls down the fire of God. It consumes offering and altar, stones and all, just as he said it would. After that, in true Old Testament fashion, Elijah kills the priests of Baal, all 450 of them. This enrages the still powerful Jezebel. She promises Elijah that she will kill him if it is the last thing she does.
Elijah, earlier so full of zeal and courage and righteousness, takes off. Turns tail and runs. He does not say good bye, does not turn back, does not trust God to save him, does not deliver any pithy parting prophecies. He runs as fast as his legs will carry him, as far as he can go.
Which is where we meet up with Elijah today, sitting under a broom tree, knowing his failure, choking on his fear, disgusted with himself. “It is enough. Take away my life. I am no better than my ancestors.” Having confessed this, he sleeps, not knowing if he will wake, praying he will not. He awakes to the touch of an angel and the smell of freshly baked cake. Get up. Eat.
As interesting as what the angel does and says is what she does not say. She does not minimize or trivialize. The angel does not say, “It’s all part of God’s plan” or “Everything will be fine, the worst is over” or “Eat this and you’ll be rich and thin and beautiful and popular and everything will be easy from now on”
She touches him gently and as one writer paraphrases, she says, ““The journey is hard. It’s hard. You won’t ever make it on your own. But listen, you don’t have to. Here’s cake. Here’s sustenance. Here’s journeying bread. Get up and eat it. Eat it because life is hard. Eat it because there will be dangers along the way and you’ll need to stay alert. Eat it so you’ll be strong enough to face the perils that lie ahead. You can’t sidestep the journey; it belongs to you. But you can choose how you make it. Famished or fed. Strengthened or weak. Accompanied or alone. Which will you choose?” (Debie Thomas, Journeying Bread, Journey with Jesus)
“I am the Bread of Life”, says Jesus. The bread come down from heaven. Jesus offers Himself, life and love, flesh and soul to succor, to comfort, to sustain, to nourish – in the zealous times, in the crazy times, the dry times, the frightened times, the tired times – on a journey too difficult to undertake alone, and impossible to forgo.
Get up. Eat.
Hold out your hands, your heart, your sliver of faith. Walk in imitation of Christ, knowing that no matter how hard it is to put away anger and bitterness and malice, no matter how vulnerable it makes you to be kind and loving and to forgive, no matter how overwhelming the journey, or how poorly you travel, He offers the bread of life, sustenance for the journey.
One pastor writes, “When we come to our moments of sitting alone under the broom tree, “too tired to run and too scared to rest,” when we look back on our lives and see only our faults and failures, our disappointments and unfulfilled ambitions looming up and chasing us like Jezebel’s pursuing minions, when we feel like we have done all we can and despite our best intentions, we find we are no better than our ancestors, we must remember how God responded to Elijah and how God will respond to us.
We must listen carefully and hear God say to us, “Arise and eat. I know who you are and what you’ve done and failed to do and I love you anyway. Here, have some bread. I made it myself; I call it the bread of life.” (Delmer Chilton, Two Bubbas and a Bible, 2012)
Get up and eat. Amen
Proper 12, B
As I was preparing for this Sunday in all prayerfulness, I googled… (I have to stop there. I know I’m like 12 words into the sermon and I promise I won’t keep interrupting myself because I know you all have other things that you need to do today, but I have disclose that there is some question in my mind as to whether the dubious verb “to google” in any form or tense should appear in any sermon ever anywhere. But, I go where the Spirit leads me and thus here we are, you and me together).
As I was preparing for this Sunday I googled the phrase “the problem with miracles”. Just that… “the problem with miracles”. With that simple query I found, or more accurately Google found, 14,400,000 results for “the problem with miracles”. Now we’ve talked in the past about “the problem with miracles”, but 14 m entries.
The Reverend Thomas Bayes, a Presbyterian minister and serious math nerd, developed what was later called Bayes theorem in the late 1760’s. Bayes theorem, which describes how to update probabilities in the face of new evidence, continues to prove crucial today in data gathering, machine science and AI. It has been used in testing new medicines, in weather forecasting, to improve mobile-phone reception, and apparently, in the assessment of miracles. Here is a simple representation using Bayes’ Theorem of how a miracle claim would be assessed, where m is the claim that a miracle has occurred, e is the evidence for the claim, and k is background knowledge:
p(e/m & k) × p(m/k)
p(m/e & k) =